Jorge Cornell sentenced to 28 years

kingjayFrom Yes! Weekly

North Carolina Latin Kings leader Jorge Cornell leader received a sentence of 28 years in federal prison for criminal racketeering on Wednesday, with a federal judge in Winston-Salem noting the defendant’s “good works and ethics” before granting a variance from sentencing guidelines.

The statutory maximum of 50 years would likely have amounted to a life sentence for the 36-year-old Cornell, who suffers from high blood pressure and sleep apnea. The sentencing guidelines set a minimum of 30 years. US District Court Judge James A. Beaty Jr. consolidated two counts of racketeering against Cornell, including one related to the defendant’s alleged role in a shooting at Maplewood apartments for a total of 18 years. A third count, also related to the Maplewood shooting, of violent crime in aid of racketeering carried a mandatory minimum of 10 years.

Cornell spoke extensively before receiving the sentence, telling the court he doesn’t hold faith in the justice system although he expects the verdicts to be overturned on appeal.

“When I founded this nation, I kicked out everyone who committed crimes,” said Cornell, wearing an orange jumpsuit and chains around his waist. “Individuals who took the stand, they didn’t understand the true nature of what it meant to be a King. You look at the lessons: It doesn’t say, ‘Go kill.’ It doesn’t say, ‘Go sell drugs.’

“I never, ever gave any order to anyone to commit any act of violence,” he continued. “Never.

“I’m an innocent man,” he continued. “I will continue to say I’m innocent ’til the day I die. To the community, I say, ‘It’s not goodbye; it’s see you later.’”

Anticipating the judge’s sentence, Cornell said, “I forgive you and I forgive those that wronged me. I forgive those that took the stand, because I knew they were under pressure. They were mad because I kicked them out because they wanted to be gangster. These very people who wanted to be gangster were the first to break when the indictment came down. If you’re a so-called gangster, you’re supposed to take responsibility. I said to them: ‘Why would you want to be gangster when you can be royalty?’ Being royalty is helping your community.”

About 20 people, mostly from Greensboro but also from Chapel Hill, attended the sentencing to demonstrate support for Cornell, and six testified on his behalf.

Brian Sims, a faculty member at NC A&T University, said he got to know Cornell while speaking with him on a panel on the topic of black-brown unity at Guilford College in 2008. Later, Sims invited Cornell to speak to a night class at A&T as a guest lecturer. He testified that Cornell was an effective communicator who engaged his students so well that some “stuck around for hours to talk” with him – uncharacteristic for a group that was usually out the door the minute the class concluded.

“I want to counter the notion that Jorge Cornell was anything other than a positive, sometimes essential contributor to the lifeblood of the community,” Sims said. “Look out into the courtroom and you’ll see people of all races and ages, people who are believers and non-believers. What all of us, despite our differences, have seen is a very dignified, humble, wonderful individual who all of us want to be.”

Signe Waller Foxworth testified about living with Cornell for most of 2011 when she and her husband rented a spare, upstairs room to him at their home in Greensboro. Foxworth said she “respected” and “admired” Cornell and spoke of “the great love he had for his daughters. Foxworth said she knew Cornell had been seeking employment during that period and might have secured some temporary jobs, but wasn’t certain.

“I can speak about how he used my kitchen a couple times to make candy lollypops with his daughters that he sold just to get a little money,” she said.

Terrence Muhammad, a community activist who worked extensively with the defendant said, “If Jorge Cornell was a drug dealer, he was the brokest one I ever met.”

Muhammad described taking part in a meeting that Cornell convened in the basement of Genesis Baptist Church in 2008 to develop a peace accord among street organizations. While there was no apparent conflict at the time, Muhammad said the participants engaged in “an in-depth, long discussion, a frank and open discussion.”

Muhammad said, “Jorge Cornell is not a thug. Jorge Cornell is not a gangster. In my 42 years in Greensboro, I have not lived in terror of gang violence.”

A number of witnesses spoke about Cornell’s unsuccessful bids for Greensboro City Council and his effort to establish a non-profit temporary labor agency to employ ex-felons.

Lewis Pitts, managing attorney for the Advocates for Children’s Services unit of Legal Aid of North Carolina, said became involved with Cornell after reading in a newspaper about the peace accord among street organizations.

“When I read that several of the gangs – and I use that term in quotes – had been meeting together with the intent of ceasing any physical conflict and violence between each other and pursuing racial and economic justice, based on my many years of work with groups pursuing racial and economic justice, it prompted me to be concerned whether there would be retaliation for that.”

Pitts, who began his career as a criminal defense lawyer, addressed Beaty directly.

“I want to be more than a name on a piece of paper to you, Judge Beaty, to refute the idea that I have been duped by some kind of smokescreen,” Pitts said. “As a criminal defense attorney I’ve dealt with some pretty unsavory people who have done heinous things. I think I’m pretty good at sizing people up.”

Pitts said he recognized that the jury had spoken in finding Cornell guilty of racketeering activities, but that he found it impossible to believe that the allegations were true. He asked Beaty to consider allegations that the Latin Kings’ civil rights had been violated that are outlined in a 2010 complaint to the U.S. Justice Department.

“Keep in the back of your mind that this was an improper prosecution,” he said. “Some people at the lower level might have been squeezed to provide false testimony.”

Cornell began his statement to the court by accusing the government of engaging in prosecutorial misconduct. He alluded to evidence the prosecution put on to the effect that Cornell ordered members in Charlotte to procure weapons for the purpose of retaliation after he was shot in 2008.

“They had information that an officer of the Greensboro Police Department CSI said the police set me up to be shot,” Cornell said. “They have a duty as officers of the law to seek justice, but they did not want to investigate this; they wanted it to blow over.”

Former Greensboro police officer AJ Blake filed a complaint against police employee Patricia Caffey alleging that she told US Attorney Robert AJ Lang that Blake shot Cornell. Blake said the statement was completely false.

Cornell said the defense didn’t have an opportunity to enter the information into evidence because his lawyer Michael Patrick misplaced the document. Patrick declined to comment after the sentencing except to say that that was not his recollection.

Cornell attempted to submit the document to the court. Judge Beaty said he would not allow it to be entered into evidence.

Cornell also alleged that the government prevented him from presenting evidence by placing a gag order on the Greensboro Police Department to thwart public records requests by his supporters.

“This is serious, judge,” Cornell said. “Mr. Lang from the US Attorney’s office was the one who put the veil of secrecy to keep me from getting the documents.”

Beaty said he had sought to impose a sentence that was “sufficient, but not greater than necessary,” which would provide “just punishment and ample deterrence. He also said the sentence took into consideration Cornell’s difficult childhood and the various community members whose testimony reflected that the defendant “did things with good purpose that, as he perceived it, promoted social justice.”

Arguing for leniency, Patrick spoke about Cornell’s childhood in New York City.

“His natural parents were both addicts in New York City,” Patrick said. “He moved at the age of 8. His recollection of that is that they fought over who was going to get the last batch of drugs. He bounced around from foster home to foster home until he was finally placed with a family for adoption.”

Cornell’s 15-year-old daughter sat on the third row smiling proudly as her father’s defense counsel spoke. Patrick said that contrary to the government’s argument, Cornell moved to North Carolina to be close to his children.

“He is someone who is struggling to make his way in life and chose the Latin Kings as his way to do that,” Patrick said. “But he’s also someone who has made significant contributions to the community, including promoting gang peace.”

Prosecutor Leshia Lee-Dixon said there was no basis for a variance.

“It was clear that Mr. Cornell, based on testimony, came to North Carolina to start the Latin Kings,” she said. “He recruited very young members and taught them who to attack.”

Lee-Dixon cited testimony by John Choe, Mixay and Bouakham Keophakhoun, and Rojelio Lopez, and argued that they all “suffered the impact of orders given by Mr. Cornell.”

Choe and the Keophakhouns are business owners in Greensboro who were robbed by Latin Kings members. Lopez is a construction worker who was shot by a Latin Kings member in an apparent case of mistaken identity during a retaliatory strike.

“I really feel bad for the victims because if I knew that any members did that, I would have thrown them out long before I did,” Cornell said. “I can’t just throw someone out just like that, judge. In the Latin Kings, we require evidence. I waited until I got evidence.”

Lee-Dixon portrayed Cornell’s many associations with community leaders as hypocritical. Alluding to a letter from Guilford County School Board member Deena Hayes-Green lauding Cornell for working “constructively on school safety,” Lee-Dixon said, “Even while he was coordinating with a middle-school administrator, he was recruiting middle-school students to create flourishing organized crime in this community.”

The government and defense counsel argued whether Cornell’s pre-sentence report should include information about drug trafficking and arson. Patrick noted that the jury acquitted all defendants on those overt acts. Both sides acknowledged that the points of contention would not affect the sentencing guidelines either way.

“We think it’s important for the information to not only be accurate, but to also reflect the true nature and scope of the enterprise,” Lee-Dixon said.

Judge Beaty turned down a request by the government to find Cornell guilty of obstruction of justice stemming from phone conversations with supporter Saralee Gallien prior to her testimony. Patrick told the court that Gallien’s testimony would have impeached the testimony of Charles Moore, a cooperating witness. The judge ruled that Gallien’s testimony would be excluded, so it had no impact on the verdict.

The sentencing drew Randall Westmoreland, a delivery driver from Stokesdale who served on the jury.

Westmoreland said before the sentencing that the jury had been split, with one group favoring conviction of all six defendants who pleaded not guilty and went to trial, and another favoring acquittals for all. Westmoreland was in a third group that was adamant that some should be convicted but not all. He said the jury had been confused about whether the instructions required that participation in the enterprise was sufficient to convict or an individual defendant had to commit a specific racketeering act. The jury ultimately resolved the impasse to avoid a mistrial, Westmoreland said, by taking the compromise approach of finding some defendants guilty and others not guilty.

Westmoreland took the view that Randolph Kilfoil, Cornell’s younger brother who was also known as King Paul, should be acquitted. His fellow jurors ultimately agreed.

“One of the problems I had with [convicting] Paul is he had been in prison the majority of the time,” Westmoreland said. “Maybe he communicated in prison; I don’t know.”

He said that he had no doubt about Cornell’s involvement in the Maplewood apartments shooting, and found the evidence presented by the government to be compelling. The shooting accounted for the three guilty counts, including the violence crime in aid of racketeering act, which added 10 years to Cornell’s sentence.

The sentencing of Marcelo Ysrael Perez, the admitted shooter in the Maplewood incident, along with Richard Robinson, Charles Moore and Luis Rosa, are scheduled for today at 10 a.m. All four pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the government.

Sentencing for Russell Kilfoil, another of Cornell’s brothers — also known as Jonathan Hernandez — is scheduled for Aug. 28.

Cornell’s supporters left the courtroom in solemn but good spirits, having been prepared for the worst.

“I think the sentence in relationship to what I believe to be his innocence is harsh and unwarranted,” the Rev. Nelson Johnson said. “In relationship to the courts and the legal guidelines, the judge seemed to take the lenient side.”

Justin Flores, an organizer with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, came to court to show support for Cornell. The two had worked together since meeting at Black-Brown Unity Conference in 2009.

“It’s sad,” Flores said. “Thirty years is a long time for something that we all know he was innocent of.”

Cornell concluded his remarks by pledging that the sentence would not be the end of his story.

“I want the community to know that I love them,” he said. “This is not an end; it’s a beginning. I’m going to take that trip to Puerto Rico real soon and eat pizza. I’m a slave now, but these chains can only hold me so long.”